Words by Gordon van der Spuy
Photographs by Leonard Flemming
Materials maketh the fly. Most people buy fly tying material the way they do groceries. People walk into a shop with a fly tying ‘grocery’ list, picking packets off the shelves like one would do when visiting Pick’n Pay. The problem with fly tying material is this: Feathers and furs are a product of nature and as such vary in quality, even when buying products from a reputable brand like Whiting Farms.
Fly tying materials are not unlike shopping for avocado pears in this regard, you actually need to feel them out to see if they’re what you’re looking for. Inspect the stuff before buying it. Buy materials based on the flies you fish and the function these flies need to perform. Don’t just aimlessly buy cupboards full of stuff, narrow it down, buy materials which are versatile and focus on the quality of the materials as opposed to the quantity.
I don’t think you need a truck-load of materials to tie a wide range of effective patterns. I have two medium tool boxes full of materials and that covers me for most eventualities. My friends are surprised when they see this, but it’s true. I fish for stream trout mostly so that is reflected in the materials I own. So remember this, your material selection should be based on the type of fishing you do.
If saltwater fly fishing is your primary discipline, then owning twenty top Whiting Genetic dry fly capes would be superfluous for example. Get a core selection of materials for starters based on your fishing preference.
This is what I’d suggest for starters – it will cover most freshwater fly recipes for South African rivers and dams:
(These materials are also my bread and butter materials)
I prefer using tungsten beads for nymphing in rivers. I have a collection of tungsten beads from 1.5 mm to 4 mm in diameter and like them in silver, rose, copper, black, fluorescent white and hot orange. There are many different colours but these are the ones I primarily fish.
It is important to buy quality beads with high-tungsten content; Morne Bayman sells decent beads as does Craig Thom at StreamX. I like them in both slotted and counter-hole varieties, depending on application.
Slotted beads are used with jig hooks and are reserved for those flies I intend fishing on the point. The jig hook combined with the slotted bead keeps the nymph fishing hook pointing up resulting in less snagging and more fishing. I generally use counter-hole beads and standard hooks for the flies I fish on the top droppers. When fishing dry-and-dropper rigs, I like the smaller tungsten beads (1.5 mm and 2 mm).
Brass and Glass
I prefer flies with copper and glass beads when fishing stillwaters. Fly fisherman tend to be very conservative with bead-use. There’s overwhelming emphasis on tungsten nowadays but you’d come short if you didn’t fish glass and copper beads. You don’t always want a fly that plummets to the depths of the river or dam, sometimes moderate or minimal weight is all you require. This is true when fishing emergers subsurface on a floating line. Also, tungsten on tiny moderate flowing streams just doesn’t sit well with me. It feels like I’m dropping bombs on innocent civilians! I prefer a gentler approach on small streams, hence the use of glass and copper.
Look, I’d fish tungsten if the water’s pumping, but if it’s not I’d rather throw copper. These beads are also available in a wide range of colours (check StreamX’s stock if you don’t believe me). Glass beads on the other hand can be bought from any bead shop. I like the glass beads with the silver lining inside, I’ve noticed that these appeal to fish.
Pheasant tail (centre tail pairs)
When buying pheasant tail you want feathers with vibrant colouring and long fibres with clean whole tips. Short-fibred feathers from juvenile birds are not great. So be selective when you shop for these – Wapsi and Veniards sell decent tails.
I like my tails in their natural colour, that’s part of the magic of pheasant tail. The fibres have great colour variation on them making for very natural looking bodies. I don’t like using pheasant tail fibres as a tail and leg material as they are rather fragile and thick. However, when wound around the hook shank to form an abdomen or even a thorax, held in place with ribbed copper, they look great.
Coq de Leon
These feathers offer excellent fibres for tails of both nymphs and dries. They have beautiful markings and ample fibre length making them user-friendly. Whiting Farms in the USA provide capes and saddles which are great in this regard.
The real Gallo de Leon from Spain, however, is incomparable in quality. The fibres on these feathers are thinner, shinier, have decent tips and are much better than the Whiting products. These feathers come from the original breeding region in Spain. I did quite a bit of research on this for an article that was published a while back. They are hellishly expensive though and almost impossible to find, but if and when you do get them they are well worth the investment. Charles Stewart at the Fishing Pro Shop in Pretoria had some in stock at one stage – worth a look.
I use the thinnest wire I can find because I mostly rib material on small nymphs. Thicker wire is needed if you like using flies such as Copper Johns; again, a visit to your local bead shop can be rewarding in this regard. I also enjoy collecting the copper wire from small transistors – your local mechanic or computer technician should have some of these for you to dismantle.
Peacock herl and eye feathers
I collect my own peacock feathers from farms. Eye feathers provide lovely quills for nymphs, dries and emergers. Finding eyes with quills which are light in colour with a nice dark edge can be tricky. You don’t always get them. These quills are sold commercially, but they can be very expensive. Veniards and Polish Quills package a nice quill.
I recently picked up an immature peacock tail feather; the herls on this were great, thin herls with bright iridescent colouring unlike those I’ve seen before. With the herls being thin they are great for small dries. Peacock herl is often too thick for small flies and they add too much bulk to the fly. Try to get hold of freshly shed peacock feathers, they are more vibrant and work better for me.
I love squirrel fur as dubbing. It’s spikey, yet easy to work with, and the stuff just looks buggy. The tails are also very useful for para RAB’s. I’d suggest you get a full skin if you can. I know Morne at the African Fly Angler sells them from time to time. One can always cut the skin in patches and dye them to the colour of your preference. I have them in natural, olive, red and black.
I occasionally also sell skins, but they go as quickly as they come in. I’ve literally got people on a waiting list for skins. To satisfy the high demand I keep many a school pupils wealthy with pocket money. Stellenbosch and Somerset West’s squirrel populations are currently out of control. Culling them is to the benefit of everyone concerned – and especially beneficial to saving our indigenous birds that lose their eggs and chicks to these glorified tree rats! I also don’t hesitate to collect squirrel-road-kill, which is abundant in the Cape suburbs.
Prism and UV dubbing
Prism and UV dubbing are great and add that little bit of flash to a fly. I have a pearl Prism dub which I like mixing with other natural dubbing to add flash. Orange Prism dubbing, when mixed into a natural colour squirrel dub gives you a mustard colour which works well for yellowfish. Use the Prism dubbing sparingly in your mixes. I also like the Prism peacock dubbing and use it a lot.
Fine dry fly dubbings
Hareline do a really nice fine dubbing, which is great for dries and emergers. I’ve got them in Adams grey, dark olive, light olive, tan, brown and black. This is my secret ingredient for thoraxes of small dries.
If you don’t enjoy mixing your own dubbing and prefer ready-mixed dubbing of high quality, look no further than the SF Dave Whitlock dubbing blends. I’m also a fan of seal fur dubbing and have noticed its availability in a few shops. Hansie from “Catch me if you can” had a great selection at one stage. Craig Thom at StreamX also has some nice seal fur.
DMC 1402, pearl and UV mylar tinsel or flashabou
Tinsel and flashabou are great materials for ribbing and work well as a wing case on flashback nymphs and emergers. Get thin stuff, it’s more versatile. Pearl and UV flashabou can also be coloured with permanent markers to great effect. Covered with UV resins these materials are awesome for thin, slick, fast-sinking nymphs. I like the DMC embroidery threads for ribbing on ZAK nymphs and emergers.
You need partridge skin in two colours, olive and natural. Full skins are better than buying loose packets as they offer you a wider size range of feathers which are neatly arranged on the skin making matching pairs easy to find.
These feathers are great for soft hackles but equally useful for Papa Roach and Walker’s Killer-style flies. Partride also looks great when used as legs on damsel fly nymphs. Veniards do a really nice skin, as does Hareline – they are expensive though. If you know a hunter then local francolin skins are equal in quality. We have many species of these birds here in South Africa. Someone once gave me a box filled with thirty skins; I dished them out to my local tying group at the time.
Elk, deer hair and klippies
Hair with clean tips and straight fibres with a sponge-like texture when you squeeze the patch between your fingers is what you want. Straight hair just works easier; keep in mind, here I’m not referring to frizz, frizz is fine, the actual hair must not be sickle-shaped.
I love using elk, klippies and deer hair for wings on dry flies like the Elk Hair caddis and hoppers. I rarely spin with the stuff but when I do I use my really bad quality klippies with broken tips – you end up trimming the stuff anyway so broken tips are not a problem. Hair patches also dye well. Tom Sutcliffe’s shown me that yellow is a great colour for his DDD pattern, for instance.
Natures Spirit and Hareline have great hair. Veniard have good hair occasionally, I bought some nice natural roe a while back but it’s a bit of a hit and miss affair with their hair products. I’ve come across really bad hair in the shops, so be selective when you buy these items. Just please don’t buy the bad stuff!
Good quality cdc is very hard to come by in South Africa, most of the stuff that’s available commercially is in fact very bad. A decent quality cdc feather should have a dense fibre count along the feather stem with many tiny micro barbules on each fibre.
Longer fibres are also more versatile. They need to be soft with structure. Avoid feathers which look like pillow fluff. Swiss CDC and Petejeans package a good selection of cdc. Unfortunately they’re both hard to come by though.
Spirit River and Dohiku also have decent cdc products, but I do find them to be a bit on the fluffy side. The barbules are sometimes a bit big – fluffy cdc tends to be better for nymphs and soft hackles. Egyptian goose cdc also has this fluffy quality to it. As South Africans we aren’t exposed to top quality cdc on a regular basis so we literally don’t know what it looks like. Decent cdc is easy to work with. Bad quality cdc is not.
I love biots, they are simply awesome for bodies of nymphs and dries. Biots come from the primary flight feathers of birds. The larger the bird the bigger the biot. When are easy to wrap and make good-looking bodies.
Turkey biots are great as they tend to be longer and are thus easy to work with. Goose biots are also nice, especially on smaller flies, but sometimes a bit on the short side – so you tend to run out of biot as you’re wrapping. My favourite though has to be peacock biots, Mark Krige introduced them to me many years ago. They’re long, thin and full of colour with a lovely tan edge. They’re easy to come by provided you know someone with peacocks.
Wapsi does a really nice turkey biot. I find that biots give flies a lovely taper; as you’re overlapping slightly on each consecutive wrap, abdomens get that lovely carrot shape.
Antron yarn, polypropylene, and Mcflyfoam
All these yarns are great post materials for dry flies; they’re also great for wings of spinner patterns. Some people also use the fibres of these yarns for shucks on emergers. Wapsi packages a really nice polypropylene. Veniards on the other hand package a really nice Antron yarn.
Some people use aero wing which has hollow fibres and is said to improve floatation. However, I mainly use polypropylene and antron yarn for posts – when used like this these materials are not in direct contact with the water surface, the hackle wound around it performs this function. Hollow fibres for posts are thus not necessary in my opinion. Hollow fibre yarns are more suitable to spinner wings. That said I use cdc for spent spinner wings as I feel it gives the wings a more ‘translucent’ look when viewed from below. I stock these yarns in white, grey, fluorescent red and black.
Dry fly hackle
Fine hackle is essential for tying nice dry flies. Good hackle offers structure to the dry fly, which in turn provides resistance against the surface film and so keeping it afloat.
Hackle feathers aren’t buoyant, traditional hackled flies float due to design, not inherent buoyancy, hence the need for good quality hackle.
I trust only two hackle brands for my own dry flies; Whiting and Collins. Whiting provides a good quality dry fly hackle at a reasonable price; their bronze saddles and necks are great and ample for the average tiers dry fly needs. I’d suggest you have them in grizzly, brown, dun and black. If you want olive you can always dye some of the grizzly feathers. Good dry fly hackle has the following attributes:
a) Thin, flexible and straight feather stems (this is very important, a thick stem will trap fibres when the hackle is wound diminishing structure);
b) Dense fibres, which are stiff and springy, along the feather stem;
c) Minimal web (small barbules present at the base of fibres) with a large sweet spot on the feather (section of feather with no web – ‘webby’ feathers tend to retain water, you don’t want your hackle sucking up water, hence the need for clean web free fibres);
d) Consistent fibre length along the feather stem.
Saddles offer more material than capes but do have the disadvantage of having limited hackle sizes – not a problem though if you’re tying dries in a specific size range. In terms of saving money, saddles are the way to go.
Collins do a great cape but their products are not available in this country; their hackle is traditional Catskill style hackle and are not as dense as modern Whiting feathers – great nonetheless. I have a few and enjoy using them, especially when I want a sparser hackle. Their saddles are not so good for dries but are useful for Woolly Buggers, for instance. That said Charlie breeds his chicken specifically for their capes, he gives the saddles away with the capes.
Marabou is extremely versatile. It works well for movement in tails, filamentous bodies, and is also useful in a split thread application in which case it is spun and wrapped as a soft hackle of sorts.
I like marabou which has long fibres and use different types of marabou for different applications. I like the fluffier stuff for tails. The thin sparse fibres found on some feathers get used for wrapping bodies on damsels. Look for marabou with long fibres as these feathers are more versatile. Marabou needs to be lush.
Monofilament fishing line, such as thin tippet material, works well as a ribbing material. I use thicker mono for eyes; Maxima Ultra Green in 40 lb is great when melting eyes for damsel- and dragonfly nymphs. If you want bigger eyes simply use thicker mono. Some people like plastic bead-chain in this regard. Bead-chain is not bad, but I feel mono is better. I get a more natural eye shape by melting mono.
Zonker strips (rabbit fur strips) are awesome for minnow patterns. The hair on the strips are also great in split thread applications and give a lot of movement to wet flies such as rabbit fur leaches. Hareline as well as Wapsi package decent zonker strips. I can recommend buying zonker pelts (Wapsi and Veniards package nice ones), it’s more cost effective compared to loose zonker strips. I like using zonker strips that are olive, chinchilla grey, black and purple. Purple seems to work well, don’t ask me why but it does.
Indian and Chinese capes and saddles
It’s essential to also have cheap capes and saddles in your collection of materials. Mind you, nowadays they’re not that cheap. I can remember rummaging through boxes of awesome Indian saddles as a school boy at Sollys Anglers in Pretoria. They cost us R 15.00 a pop back then and were great. Indian and Chinese capes and saddles offer hackles which are great for woolly buggers and tails on nymphs. I prefer Coq de Leon for tails but fish won’t discriminate between that and cheaper hackle fibres.
All of the above is what I would regard as essentials in selection of materials. A decent selection will put you back a few grand. That said, one can collect the goods by buying what you need at the time and slowly build the kit that way.
There are some things I’ve learnt over the years that can be useful. Just a few tips which could help you:
- When you find quality material at a good price buy as much of it as you can. I’m not joking here. I’ve been known to blow R 5000 just on hackle. A mere 5 years ago one could still get Whiting half capes for just under R 400 each; those very same capes are now almost three times that price. Hoard when you find quality, even if it takes ten years to finish it. View it as an investment. Fly tying materials are going to get more expensive, not cheaper, buy for the future. If you have excess you can always trade. Decent tying material is never a bad investment!
- Don’t be afraid to collect your own. We happen to live in a country with fantastic animals that have exquisite furs/feathers. Contact hunters, zoos, bird parks and also collect road kill to gather materials. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
This is a list of materials I own that were collected in this way:
- Yellow weaver skin;
- Squirrel skins with tails;
- Rabbit skins;
- Macaw tail feathers;
- Francolin skins;
- Full peacock skin with tail;
- Egyptian goose pelts;
- White tip turkey feathers;
- Nice township hackle, R 50 for the cape and saddle;
- Guinea fowl skins.
- Trade materials – I do this all the time, swop stuff you have surplus of for stuff you need. If you belong to a fly tying club or a forum on Facebook it’s easy to do.
- Buy in teams – I’d suggest inviting friends to club together and import or buy expensive materials. The goods are then divided and in this way a larger variety of materials are obtained with minimal cash. This is particularly true when it comes to buying things like capes and saddles.
- Buy from people who know what they’re talking about.
People don’t go to their local mechanic to get a dental. Tying is no different. Speak to guys who are knowledgeable and are good tiers themselves. Their track record should follow them. If an experienced tier sells material to you then he/she should also be able to show you how it works.
- Study materials, take time getting your brain around what attributes to look for in individual materials and what makes them useful. Use Youtube and the internet as a source for information. Let go of the ‘shopping mentality’ and get into the ‘understanding mentality’. Once you know what to look for you buy smarter. Don’t just assume that the guy helping you knows what he is talking about. Sometimes they don’t – someone at a reputable fly fishing retailer once tried to pass off filoplume as cdc to me…
Sources for Flytying materials
THE AFRICAN FLY ANGLER – An online shop specialising in quality materials; Morne has some really decent stuff and his prices are really good too. He brings in Fulling Mill hooks.
FRONTEIR, JHB – Stockists of Whiting, Tiemco and Natures Spirit. I’m not a fan of the Spirit River stuff but the Natures Spirit goods are great.
STREAMX, WESTERN CAPE – Has a great general selection of material. The local distributor for Hanak hooks and beads. Also has a range of material called “StreamX Roadkill”, including some really nice stuff here. I get my bronze mallard for my classics from this shop. StreamX has a lot of Veniard products too.
UPSTREAM, WESTERN CAPE – Stocks Dohiku hooks as well as a range of other products from them. The Dohiku CDC is great for collars on comp style nymphs. They also have nice beads.
THE COMPLETE ANGLER IN KLOOF, NATAL – Neil has a surprisingly large range of stuff for such a small shop and his prices are very competitive. I visited the shop last year whilst on tour in Natal and bought some great bargains. He had Petejean CDC selling at R 80/packet – I bought 20 packets. He also has a few Keough capes selling at R 630/cape. I’m generally not a fan of Keough but the grizzly cape he had there was good.
MIAS WOODMEAD, JHB – a massive range of materials, you do however need to know what you’re looking for. I have found some really nice things here. A great place to shop for the experienced tier. They sell lots of stuff that no one else sells. Some of these materials are utterly redundant for the tier of trout flies but for Salmon tiers they are great. I’ve bought decent GP heads as well as Amherst capes from them before – all classic tying material
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN – Hansie Meyer brings in the Hends products; they have some interesting products and are worth a look.
The challenge in this country when it comes to fly tying materials seems to be availability. There is little consistency in this regard. Go look for decent cdc and hackle if you don’t believe me. Material importers have a tough time bringing materials in. When you find decent materials buy like there is no tomorrow! Don’t let your wife know I said this.
Extra tips from Leonard Flemming:
Don’t forget to include some of the following items in your box of materials:
- Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails varnish (use this instead of commercial fly tying head cement)
- Epoxy (mainly for crab patterns)
- Super glue (to stick on eyes and stiffen up zonker at the bend of the hook – prevents wrapping)
- Clear silicone glue (the best for silicone baitfish heads and used in the JAM fly)
- Silicone rubber strands in as many colours you can find (silicone rubber is most durable and great for legs/movement)
- Dumbbells in lead, nickel and tungsten (various sizes)
- Lead wire (for additional weight in flies and for those flies you want without beads)
- Plastic, stick-on eyes (glue them on flies and dumbbells with super glue)
- SF fibres in especially mackerel, white, midnight blitz and olive (for brushes and baitfish bodies).
- Frizz fibre in white, red and olive (for brushes, underbodies and ‘gills’ in baitfish patterns)
- Crystal flash (for subtle flash in flies)
- Bucktail (for Clouser Minnows and other baitfish patterns)
- Calf’s tail (great material as an ‘undertail’ to prevent tails of flies from wrapping – such as Woolly Bugger tails)